Alaska News

'My lost love': Survivor of Mat-Su fire tried to save trapped girlfriend

PALMER — Charles "Chaz" Wocell and his girlfriend decided to get married the day before she died in a fire.

The fire early Sunday afternoon consumed Wocell's East Knik River Road home and put him in intensive care at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center with smoke inhalation.

Wocell's girlfriend, who had not been officially identified as of Monday afternoon, couldn't escape the conflagration, authorities say.

The couple had decided to get married on Saturday after knowing each other for six years,  Wocell said. They were planning to go cross-country skiing Sunday.

"I'm crying a lot about my lost love," he said Monday.

He believes cardboard boxes he used to stoke up the woodstove caused the fire.

The house was fully engulfed in flames by the time crews from Butte, Palmer and Central Mat-Su fire departments arrived. Initial reports of the fire came in around 12:15 p.m.

Alaska State Troopers say state fire marshals were told Wocell tried several times to save the woman.

Wocell said by phone from the hospital Monday that the pair was sleeping in an upstairs bedroom when they woke to the sound of the smoke detector and his dog barking.

He grabbed a jug of water and poured it on some blankets, then wrapped them both up, Wocell said. He crawled and fell down the stairs, overcome with smoke, "and just panicked and ran out of the door," he recalled. "As soon as I opened the door, this ball of flame just went everywhere and she was there."

But she was still alive, he said.

At some point Wocell flagged down a passing driver and got them to call 911, troopers said.

Wocell said he rolled in the snow and then threw an ax through the bedroom window in hopes his girlfriend could somehow get out.

He can't be sure but he thinks he saw her in the window briefly.

She never made it out.

Wocell was taken to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center along with his Lab-pit bull mix Lily, who nosed into the ambulance.

Neighors who visited him Monday said they expect him to remain in the ICU until Tuesday or Wednesday.

He singed his hair and suffered some burns as well, friend Dahlia Dyer said.

"He's a pretty positive person," she said, when asked how Wocell was doing. "He alternates trying to smile and then just bursting into tears."

She described Wocell as a larger-than-life character who gave as much away as he sold at his tire store, "Chaz's Cheep Cheep Tires."

Friend and neighbor LuLu Small, a well-known musician, picked up Lily the dog at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough animal shelter on Monday and plans to take care of her until Wocell can return home — or what's left of home.

The woman who died in the fire had turned Wocell's life around, Small said. She had invited them over for dinner Sunday night before she found out about the fire. Small never met the woman.

"I'm so sad I never got to meet her," she said Monday. "But I saw the joy she put in that man's smile."

Small has started a gofundme account and plans to coordinate a fundraiser with other musicians.

Wocell said he didn't have insurance for his home. He expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support he's getting.

"I never realized there was so much love out there," he said. "I'm overwhelmed with how many people have helped me."

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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